I’m not a great student of American history – my tastes run to other places and people: Napoleon, Casanova, Elizabeth I, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, China…. but I do read about it. Most recently Rick Perlstein’s history of the American Sixties, Nixonland. And in that book I came across a powerful, moving quotation from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt that I wanted to share because it still resonates today:
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.
Roosevelt said this in a speech called “Citizenship in a Republic,” made at the Sorbonne, Paris, France, 23 April, 1910. Source: Wikiquote.
I would write it in stone and place it in front of each member of council at the table as a reminder at every meeting that we do our best and that’s what matters. We may stumble, we may even fall now and then, but we stay in the ring, we finish what we started, and we do what we believe is right, what is best for everyone.
I know how much each of you at the table care, how hard you work, how much you ponder and worry over the questions we must all answer, and how much it means to each of you to have the best community we possibly can. You do the work, you stand in the ring and take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but you hang in because you care. And I know how much it hurts to have outsiders tear at you, to belittle and mock you, to denigrate your efforts. To try and hurt without offering to help.
At the end of the day, you can take pride in your accomplishments and your values. You are in the arena, where it counts most.
Roosevelt, it seems, was a wise, and often witty, man. He said many things, many controversial things, but also many that deserve to be remembered and repeated today. For example:
Men with the muckrake are often indispensable to the well-being of society, but only if they know when to stop raking the muck, and to look upward to the celestial crown above them. … If they gradually grow to feel that the whole world is nothing but muck their power of usefulness is gone.
Address on the laying of the cornerstone of the House Office Building, Washington, D.C. (14 April 1906).
Those words could apply to a lot of media these days.
A few years before Roosevelt became president, the writer and poet Josiah Gilbert Holland wrote words that may have inspired Roosevelt:
Why will you be always sallying out to break lances with other people’s wind-mills, when your own is not capable of grinding corn for the horse you ride?
We must make popular government responsible for the betterment both of the individual and of society at large. Let me repeat once more that, while such responsible governmental action is an absolutely necessary thing to achieve our purpose, yet it will be worse than useless if it is not accompanied by a serious effort on the part of the individuals composing the community thus to achieve each for himself a higher standard of individual betterment, not merely material but spiritual and intellectual. In other words, our democracy depends on individual improvement just as much as upon collective effort to achieve our common social improvement. The most serious troubles of the present day are unquestionably due in large part to lack of efficient governmental action, and cannot be remedied without such action; but neither can any remedy permanently avail unless back of it stands a high general character of individual citizenship.
Powerful stuff: government for the greater good, for common social improvement. But he is equal in his belief that individuals must achieve a “higher standard” to make it work.
Words of wisdom that, despite the distances of time and geography, still have meaning today.